Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The (almost) return of Curtis Turner

As I've noted before, I really enjoyed blogging over the last year or so about each of Richard Petty's 200 wins. Not only did I learn a tremendous amount about Petty history, but I also stumbled over some other meaningful minutia and NASCAR nuggets. One example soon to follow...

My memories of 1965 are pretty fuzzy - well, let's just say non-existent. I'm pretty sure its because that was the year I was born. Sleeping, eating, filling my diapers and crying took up the majority of my time. But from what I later learned as a Petty fan, 1965 is remembered as the year The King went drag racing because of Chrysler's boycott of NASCAR. For the first six months of year the year, that's about right. For the second half of the year, differences were resolved, the boycott was rescinded, the Plymouths and Dodges returned, and Petty resumed his winning ways in NASCAR.

By the time I was introduced to Richard Petty, he had over 150 wins and five NASCAR championships. I didn't know about other larger-than-life NASCAR legends such as Fast Freddy Lorenzen, Fireball Roberts, and Curtis Turner. But I learned.

Turner and Roberts were arguably the most iconic NASCAR heroes in the early 60s. Sadly, Fireball lost his life in July 1964 - about six weeks following a gut-wrenching accident and fire in the World 600 at Charlotte. I've heard some suggest his death was felt more acutely by the NASCAR fan base than the passing of Dale Earnhardt - albeit in fewer numbers.

Curtis Turner was a timber man first, a good-time-haver second, and a damn fine race driver third. Legend has it that Curtis could fly over a forest and nail an estimate of how many board feet he could yield from harvesting it. Several stories have also been published about his partying days with fellow driver Joe Weatherly. I only wish I could share a beer with someone who knew about the unpublished stories.

What many don't realize is he was the lead force behind the building of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Bruton Smith will claim otherwise, but Curtis brought that track to life. Bruton tried to build a competing track nearby but was unsuccessful. He eventually partnered with Turner to complete, open and operate CMS.

Curtis had the vision for the project and a name and the stones to get it rolling. What he didn't have as much as was needed was cash. He needed loads of it to operate the track and re-pay construction loans. He apparently signed a deal with the Teamsters Union to invest in the track. In exchange for the cash infusion, Turner agreed to do what he could to help organize drivers into the union. Bill France, Sr. was livid and banned Turner "for life" in 1961.

Four years later, the "life" sentence was rescinded. With the deaths of Roberts and Weatherly and the Chrysler boycott that sidelined the two new superstars - Richard Petty and David Pearson - France needed help.

From the mid-1950s until he was banned in 1961, Curtis was generally known as a Ford driver. He drove other makes in the early 1950s and near the end of his career, but he was most associated with Ford. When his banishment was rescinded by France, he quickly proclaimed he would resume his racing at Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg, SC driving ... a Plymouth ... fielded by Petty Enterprises.

Richard had been sidelined from stock car racing himself because of Chrysler's boycott of NASCAR. When he was ready to return, Lee Petty contracted long-time NASCAR car builder Red Vogt to build a Plymouth Fury for Richard to race in the Firecracker 400. For reasons unknown to me, the Pettys didn't make the trip to Daytona. Instead, Richard returned three weeks later at Bristol and then won at Nashville a week later in the Vogt-built Plymouth.

The Spartanburg race scheduled for August 14, 1965, conflicted with a drag racing event Richard in which he had agreed to participate before Chrysler's stock car racing boycott was lifted. Lee Petty and Turner agreed to have Curtis race Richard's Vogt-built, Nashville-winning Plymouth for his return to NASCAR.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald - August 7, 1965 via Google News Archive
One criticism of today's racing is that its too bland. Few legitimate rivalries exist. Everyone plays nice to placate their sponsors and NASCAR's TV image. But back in the day before corporate America and TV arrived, feuds were plentiful and often long-lasting. Turner's return to racing also had the potential of re-kindling rivalries from four years earlier.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald - August 11, 1965 via Google News Archive
Perry Allen Wood writes in his book Silent Speedways of the Carolinas:
Promoter Supreme Joe Littlejohn wanted Turner in a first-class ride for the comeback. So Joe got Curtis in the seat of Richard Petty's 1964 Plymouth Fury 43...In the dusty dusk of that sultry Saturday evening, Curtis warmed up for 15 or 20 laps in one of the most electrifying displays of speed and control ever seen on dirt or maybe anywhere for that matter. That Petty-blue Plymouth thundered down the front stretch, clawing the track as Turner cocked the car for the first turn. When he came through, the nose of that Plymouth was all that was visible from the infield. With that hemi howling, Curtis' big bare hands gripped the wheel fully at right lock...With thick red plumes of dust billowing from the right-side tires, he swung wide and tore down the back chute, choreographing it the same way in three and four...The jam-packed house roared its approval with every lap.

Time trials got underway beneath the lights in what was now a hot, sticky summer dusk...Pearson had timed in for second spot when Turner pulled on to the clay. With the same flair he had show in the gloaming, Turner ripped through his warm-up and set what looked like an excellent first-lap time. Before the PA announcer could broadcast the speed, Curtis flew into the first turn determined to improve on his previous clocking and backed hard into the old wooden fence that had been pounded on for years, with the Fury's right rear spinning back around facing the wrong way. It did not look nearly as bad as it was. Curtis fired it up and limped directly back to the crew by going the wrong way down the slope to enter the pit exit as if he had driven in the west gate. It was announced that his first lap was good enough for third on the grid, and all were sure Maurice would beat out the fender and bumper and Turner would assume his spot on the inside of row two. To everyone's horror, Fury 43 was pushed onto its trailer for the trip back to Randleman...A collective moan went up from the stands and infield after time trials when that wooden gate swung open right where Turner landed in turn one. The blue and silver half-ton with Plymouth painted in big blue letters on the side, pulling 34, rumbled, rattled and squeaked up the slope of the bank, over the rim and into the darkness. ~pp. 27-28
So when NASCAR's finest raced in Spartanburg, it ended up as much ado about nothing. After Turner smacked the right rear of the Petty Plymouth on his second qualifying lap, the team simply put the car on the trailer and left. Just another chapter in a long list of Curtis Turner head-shaking, memorable, funny moments.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald - August 15, 1965 via Google News Archive
Curtis finally made his return - probably as he'd truly planned anyway - in the Southern 500 at Darlington a couple of weeks after Spartanburg. And he did race a Plymouth. It was fielded by car owner Sam Fletcher vs. Petty Enterprises. Fletcher entered a grand total of seven Grand National races - all in 1965, and Turner was his driver for the last of those races.

By the way, check out the book Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of Curtis Turner if you want to learn more about this larger than life NASCAR character. Nothing in it for me - just recommending a solid book I really enjoyed.

Now if only I could score a picture of Curtis sitting at the wheel of the famed Petty Plymouth...

Edited August 13, 2014

Friday, August 3, 2012

1980 Coca-Cola 500 at Pocono

As my personal odometer continues to roll over year-by-year, the less I remember - or really even care - about what life was like back in my youth. But in thinking about it a bit, 1980 was a fun, interesting and even challenging year for me:
  • I went to my first Daytona 500 in February 1980 and saw Buddy Baker win his only 500 in Harry Ranier's #28 "Grey Ghost" Oldsmobile 442.
  • My first trip to Disneyworld was in May 1980 - at the expense of missing King Richard win the Music City 420
  • In December 1980, a surgeon performed full-blown knee surgery on me. If only arthroscopic techniques had been more widely available back then, perhaps I wouldn't be hobbling around today like Festus from Gunsmoke.
  • Our high school annual featured a candid of me wearing of course....
On July 27, 1980, an eventful race took place at Pocono - the Coca-Cola 500. Full recognition of the race's relevance didn't fully resonate with me - or likely others - that day. The race's story lines included a King's crash, the rise of a promising prodigy, the farewell of a contemporary trailblazer, and the Cup debut of a non-traditional but incredibly talented and impactful racer.

Richard Petty had a forgettable 1978 season, but he returned to form in 1979 to snag his sixth Daytona 500 victory and seventh Winston Cup championship. He had fewer wins at the mid-point of the 1980 season than in 1979, but he was hanging tough in the points standings. He was giving three-time champion Cale Yarborough and reigning rookie of the year Dale Earnhardt a good run for their money as he tried for his eighth Cup.

And then Pocono..

On lap 57, a wheel broke on Petty's #43 Monte Carlo, the back end came around, and he backed it into the boiler plate wall - HARD. The hit was in the era long before SAFER barriers or H.A.N.S. devices were even visioned much less designed and installed.

Chuck Bown spun himself to avoid hitting Richard, but then Darrell Waltrip ended up nailing the 43 right in the door.

The safety crews extricated the King from the car. But they didn't backboard him or put any sort of neck brace on him. They simply walked him to the ambulance as he grimaced in pain.

Officially, Richard suffered a 'strained neck' and pulled back muscles. The Petty team said it, Joe Mattioli from Pocono repeated it, and the media reported it.

Article courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
Even though Richard's day ended with a painful thud, Petty Enterprises still had some success in the race. Richard's son Kyle made his Pocono debut. Having run only a handful of races from late in 1979 through the mid-point of 1980, Kyle was still very much a rookie. Yet he seemed to take to Pocono like a duck to water and finished a very respectable 7th.

Each year, Indianapolis 500 officials recognize a 'rookie of the race'. In 1980, a promising young driver from Ashland, OH named Tim Richmond won the award. Sponsored by UNO playing cards (one of the best games ever in my opinion), the personality-laden driver finished 9th in his Indy 500 debut. His performance in the 500 caught the eye of Pocono's owner Joe Mattioli. He negotiated a deal with driver and car owner D.K. Ulrich to put Tim in a stock car for the 1980 Cup race. (As a reminder once again, Ulrich was the car owner of the Schaefer beer sponsored Buick driven by Al Loquasto one year later in 1981 at Pocono.)

Tim finished a very respectable 12th in his first Cup race - five spots behind Kyle Petty. Richmond returned to Indy a second time in 1981 and finished 12th while driving for Super Tex, A.J. Foyt. But with urging from his mother, he then turned to NASCAR full-time and raced stock cars full-time until 1987 when his health situation worsened dramatically. Complications from the AIDS virus he contracted and protracted legal wranglings with NASCAR's brass sidelined Tim permanently, and he finally succumbed to AIDS in 1989.

Schaefer Hall of Famer Rev. Randy recently sent me some great photos from the 1980 race given to him and shot by co-worker Jim Jandrasits.

Jim was able to snap a photo of what would be another relevant story line to the race - the final Winston Cup start for Janet Guthrie.While not the first female race driver in NASCAR, she did break some barriers by racing with some amount of relative success - both in Indy cars and in NASCAR - as both racing series gained more popularity across the country. Guthrie started 33 Cup races from 1976 through 1980, and the 1980 Pocono event was her final one.

As a Petty fan, I'm fortunate today that Jim took some great shots of the two-car team 30+ years ago. Rookie Kyle is seen standing near pit wall near his father's 43 Monte Carlo as the cars were rolled to the starting grid.

Years before pit wagons became the norm in the pits, 'extravagance' in the pits was limited to an umbrella and an Igloo cooler of cold water. Here, King Richard can be seen talking to his crew as Kyle likely gets the punchline of a joke from NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman (wearing the Ray-Ban sunglasses).

Taken from a great vantage point, Kyle is seen making a pit stop with his alternate day-glo red on Petty blue #42 scheme.

Before his vicious wreck, the King was challenging for the lead. Here here is sandwiched between the #88 Gatorade Monte Carlo of Darrell Waltrip and eventual race winner Neil Bonnett in the #21 Purolator / Wood Brothers Mercury.

Jim also had the presence of mind to snap a pic of the 1979 Rookie of the Year, Dale Earnhardt, as he pitted next to the 1979 Winston Cup champion, King Richard. Coincidentally, Earnhardt pounded the wall at Pocono a year earlier in his rookie season just as Richard did. He broke both collarbones and had to miss a couple of starts. But he returned to still claim the 1979 Rookie of the Year award.

And yes Earnhardt fans, that is Earnhardt driving a #2 car above. He didn't drive the famous #3 from the get-go because someone else was already driving with it - future car owner Richard Childress.

As Neil Bonnett headed for victory lane, second place Buddy Baker and third place Cale Yarborough call it a day and head for their haulers.

Bonnett and the Wood Brothers team took their Purolator Mercury in victory lane.

Source: Wood Brothers Racing
With apologies to the late Paul Harvey, here is ... the rest of the story.

Richard - The reality of Richard's injures weren't revealed until much, much later. Richard had indeed suffered a fracture in his neck. Incredibly and stubbornly, he soldiered on and did not miss a start. Had NASCAR known this - or had the information been leaked, its likely their hand would have been forced to sit Richard until doctors cleared him to race. Early in the next three races at Talladega, Michigan and Bristol, he turned the car over to former Petty crewman and driver, Joe Millikan.

Kyle - After a solid Pocono debut and a few other starts in 1980, Kyle began racing Cup full-time in 1981. He eventually notched a Pocono win in 1993. After the death of his son and Richard's grandson, Adam Petty, at New Hampshire in 2000, Pocono named the track's garage area as the Adam Petty Garage in his memory.

Credit: Action Sports Photography - Source: Motorsport.com
Earnhardt - With Richard's championship hopes all but gone, it was up to the veteran Yarborough and the Junior Johnson team to snag their fourth championship. The Rod Osterlund-owned team with Jake Elder as the crew chief and Earnhardt as the driver, however, may have bent but didn't break. The team withstood a strong challenge by the Yarborough team, but in the end Earnhardt earned the first of his seven Cup championships.

Richmond - After racing a part-time schedule by hopping rides with multiple car owners in 1981 and 1982, Tim finally landed with car owner Raymond Beadle and his Old Milwaukee Beer sponsored Pontiac team in 1983. After a moderately successful three year run with the Blue Max team, Tim moved to Hendrick Motorsports in 1986. He and crew chief Harry Hyde caught lightning in a bottle about a third of the way through the season. With seven wins to their credit but without the Cup, the 25 team was among the favorites heading into the 1987 season. But as Richmond's undisclosed illness began to take over, he all but faded away. Tim made an abbreviated but remarkable comeback midway through 1987 by winning back-to-back races at Riverside and Pocono. After that, however, he wasn't super-competitive and raced for the final time late in mid-August 1987.

Edited July 27, 2014

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Thank you for your Petty contributions!

August 1, 2011 through July 31, 2012. Whew. A year. 200 wins by Richard Petty, 200 posts ... almost. Plus, I threw in a couple of bonus posts for his first professional racing start, his first NASCAR Grand National start, and his first racing win - a convertible race at Columbia Speedway.

As a kid, my uncle took me to my first race - a late model sportsman event - at Nashville Speedway in 1974. At the time, he drove a light blue Plymouth with a hood as long as a Kansas prairie. And he'd started following a young driver named Richard Petty in the early 60s because the guy drove Plymouths.

My uncle told me I better become a Richard Petty fan if I planned to follow Winston Cup racing and have him take me to races - so I did beginning in 1975. I immediately began accumulating photos, postcards, decals, newspaper articles,  programs, tickets, die-cast, magazines, autographs, patches, etc. (And my uncle did take me to my first Cup race at Nashville in 1978 and my first Daytona 500 in 1980.) Over the years, I often wondered how I could share my interest in racing with others. Before Al Gore invented the interwebs, it was pretty much impractical. But I kept wondering. More recently, I wondered how I could share my specific interest in the history of Richard Petty with others.

I started by trying to compile a list of Petty-related, daily trivia nuggets. While I still don't have 365 days' worth, I'm pretty close. The trivia I have compiled rotates daily as a side panel here and has been there pretty much since this blog began 3+ years ago.

Then I met Jerry Bushmire, a fellow Petty fan, through JalopyJournal's H.A.M.B. and TrackForum.com. It didn't take me long to realize Jerry was a bit more ... um, uh, ahem ... seasoned than me.

A friendship started immediately with our common interests in racing in general and the Pettys specifically. In one e-mail, I told him my brain fart about wanting to do something about my interest in the team from Level Cross. Who knows - maybe a blog about each of his wins or something. But I would need content. His response was "I think I can help make that happen."

Over the next few weeks of winter and spring 2011, my inbox received a deluge of new messages from Jerry with scans of Petty related articles and photos from his archives going back to ground zero of Richard's career. And I thought it was me who was consumed with The King's history.

So off I charged. I'm no Raymond Babbitt, but I originally thought I could hold my own with a lot of Petty trivia. But I learned a ton of new information over the last year. I also got input from a bunch of existing friends - as well as from a few new ones. Many are fellow Petty fans. Some didn't pull for him but respected him and still had memorable stories or other information to share. I soaked it all in and tried to work in the various anecdotes and other contributions where I could. Hopefully, I was solid in giving attribution as appropriate throughout the last year.

As the dust settles, I posted something for 198 of the King's 200 NASCAR Grand National / Winston Cup victories. Two wins eluded Jerry and me. Neither of us had anything in our collections nor was the web much help for RP's 10th win on August 15, 1962, in Roanoke, Virginia or his 40th win on September 17, 1965, in Manassas, Virginia. Got anything on these two wins? If so, pass 'em along to me at toomuchcountry (at) gmail (dot) com, and I'll feature them ASAP.

So at the risk of leaving someone out, I'm going to attempt to list the names who helped make an enjoyable project for me become a reality.

First of all - The King himself - Richard Petty. The cat was cool and talented from the time I was first lectured by my uncle to follow him. And he remains so today.

Secondly, Jerry Bushmire. Without your contributions, I would not have undertaken this effort. You are the wind benea ... No, wait. Scratch that. Not going there. Thanks and we'll leave it at that.

Travis Atkison
Former Petty Enterprises crewman, Billy Biscoe
Johnny Boone
Photographer, Al Consoli
Retired journalist, Buddy Chapman
Photographer, Brian Cleary of bcpix.com
Journalist, writer, musician & lifelong David Pearson fan, Monte Dutton
Writer, Greg Fielden and his great series of books - Forty Years of Stock Car Racing
Mrs. Margaret Frank
Dave Fulton
Randy Gilbert
Founder of RacersReunion.com, Jeff Gilder
Lee Greenawalt
Former Petty Enterprises crewman and NASCAR crew chief, Steve Hmiel
Chris Hussey
Brian 200WINZ Hauck
Writer, Tom Higgins
William Horrell
Writer, Rick Houston
Lynn Hughes
NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief, Dale Inman
Ray Lamm
Tim Leeming
Former NASCAR Grand National driver, Paul Lewis
Charlie Lovell
Rebecca Moffitt
Doug Murph from Petty's Garage
Leon Phillips
Ed Sanservino
Stephen Sanders
Smyle Media owner, Don Smyle
Robbie Solesbee
Harvey Tollison
Russ Thompson
Ron Willard
Bobby Williamson
Writer, Perry Allen Wood
Paul Woody
Philly, My fellow Schaefer Hall of Fame co-founder and brother from another mother
The staff at the Richard Petty Museum
The staff at the Riverside International Automotive Museum
All the great, anonymous folks and your YouTube videos
All the folks who sold Petty related things on ebay and didn't watermark your images

I raise a hearty Schaefer scha-loot to each and every one of you. Hopefully, I'll see some of you at the track.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has read a post, left a comment, sent me an e-mail, re-tweeted a link, texted me, featured me on Facebook, etc. about these entries. I'm glad they were enjoyed.